Contenders: Post-Punk

by Nick Paumgarten
The New Yorker
October 11, 2004

It is customary for politicians to be called rock stars and for rock stars to be active in politics, but there haven’t really been any rock stars who are politicians, in the Mr. Smith sense of the word. “Sonny Bono doesn’t count,” Danny Goldberg, the record executive and liberal activist, said one night last week. “He was television, not rock and roll.” Goldberg was standing in the garden behind his town house, in the West Village, in the midst of a party he and his wife, Rosemary Carroll, were throwing for Krist Novoselic, the former bassist for Nirvana, one of the bands Goldberg used to manage. Goldberg was making the case that Novoselic was a serious man, with serious prospects. “He’ll be governor of the state of Washington one day,” Goldberg said. “He’s our Arnold.”

The occasion for the party, if not for the comparison, was Novoselic’s new book, “Of Grunge and Government: Let’s Fix This Broken Democracy!,” which Goldberg had published, in partnership with Akashic Books (its motto is “Reverse-gentrification of the literary world”). Novoselic was using a book tour to canvass on behalf of some of his pet electoral reforms (instant runoff voting, proportional representation), his promotion of which would be familiar to legislators and alternative-weekly editors in his home state of Washington. He’s a local-politics veteran; in 1995, he helped form JAMPAC: the Joint Artists and Music Promotions Political Action Committee in order to help get Seattle teen-agers access to live music. From there, it was a short leap to ranked ballots.

Novoselic, thirty-nine, is tall and baldish, with a kindly, half-bewildered expression and posture that call to mind the Andy Kaufman character Latka. At the party, he was wearing a wide-striped oxford shirt and new black Carhartt pants, with a big belt buckle. When it came time for him to speak, the guests for the most part, rock-and-roll chroniclers and practitioners in a political mood (“We were thinking that a good name for a band would be Swing State”) gathered at one end of the garden. Novoselic’s opening remark, “Hey, thanks for coming,” prompted laughter, as though his audience was prepared to receive him as a lampooner of stump talk. But silence took hold as he embarked on a sincere speech about hope (“As I travel around the nation meeting people . . .”) and apathy (“. . . who have lost faith in our democracy”). He chopped the air with his right hand. His voice had the singsongy cadence of the Pacific Northwest, which to tristate-area ears sounded like Eskimo.

On the rocker-activist continuum, Novoselic would be slotted, ardorwise, somewhere between Don Henley and Dee Snider, but in terms of technical expertise he’s probably closer to Frank Zappa. “We’re stuck with this eighteenth-century electoral system,” Novoselic said, winding up his garden talk. “We need to update our operating system. An electoral system is like an operating system on a computer. We’ve got this hard drive, and we can tap all the information. We’ve got a real fast processor; it can handle the participation. But our operating system is like this DOS system from the eighties. We need an open-source democracy, like a Linux system or a Macintosh, a 10.35. And, of course, Windows, the new Windows system, me being from Washington. So, we can do it!”

The state of Washington has not historically been a great incubator of national political talent. The big exception may be Henry (Scoop) Jackson, the longtime Democratic senator and Red-baiter, whose protoges included Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and Elliott Abrams. Novoselic is no Scoop Jackson. Still, he has given up on the music business and taken up the scutwork of politics full time. He even considered running for lieutenant governor this fall. In the end, he said, “I decided I’d rather do something than be something.” Still, in the spirit of the political game, he won’t rule out future campaigns. “It just depends on what’s going on, how the landscape looks,” he said. “Right now, I’m just looking forward to the next legislative session in Olympia.”

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